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The coronavirus pandemic has created a greater risk than ever before to the health, safety and wellbeing of communities in Lochaber and elsewhere across the Highlands and to the provision of essential council services.
While details of the adverse wider impact COVID-19 is having on the Highland economy are yet to fully emerge, it is still expected to be substantial with businesses folding and jobs being lost.
That was the depressing scenario confronting councillors taking part in last week’s virtual Highland Council Corporate Resources Committee, with the members being left in no doubt about the significant and serious impact COVID-19 continues to have on the local authority’s budget.
The scale and immediacy of financial challenges to be faced were laid out in a report that modelled two different potential scenarios – in the ‘mid case’ scenario, a budget gap of £65.7m is projected while, in the most severe, a potential gap of £96.9m is projected.
In a statement following the meeting, the council said at this time the level of risk it faces is greater than perhaps ever before. The risks cover those to staff and their health and wellbeing, to the health, safety and wellbeing of local communities and risks to the provision of essential council services.
The council said its staff, partners and communities have all stepped up to provide a response to the immediate challenges posed, including providing support to the most vulnerable as well as providing care for key workers. At the same time the council has been continuing to provide essential public services.
The long-term impacts of these factors will be felt by the council, both in terms of reduced income generation and increasing demand for services over many years to come.
Asked to comment from a Lochaber perspective, Councillor Ben Thompson (Caol and Mallaig) told us: ‘The statement from the Highland Council should make it clear that that Scottish and UK governments need to support councils urgently.
‘Unlike many businesses, local authorities have had no grants at all to make up for lost income and no furlough scheme is available to replace local tax spent on employees who can’t work because they are shielding.
‘It’s even more shocking to me there is no Bellwin Scheme – the scheme that finances councils during national emergencies.’
And Councillor Thompson warned: ‘If no support is forthcoming, I fear we are going to see a huge reduction in council spending that ultimately helps keep our local economy going.’
Councillor Denis Rixson (Caol and Mallaig) commented: ‘The current Scottish Government likes to centralise command and control. It needs to trust local government in Scotland.
‘We have a symbiotic relationship. They hold the purse strings – but they need us to deliver on their behalf. We have the knowledge, the skills and the workforce to perform at ground level.
‘We have done an enormous amount of work for the Scottish Government – setting up Humanitarian Assistance Centres, putting in place Keyworker Childcare Hubs, dispensing grants to thousands of businesses. And there’s still more to do, and holes to plug. Please, finance us fully to do this.
‘In short, devolution of power, responsibility, money and trust should not just be to Scotland – but within Scotland.’
Chairman of the resources committee, Councillor Alister Mackinnon, said: ‘COVID-19 has impacted on all of our communities.
‘To respond, the council has had to quickly adapt to provide new services, including the Humanitarian Assistance Centres, the helpline, food projects, hardship and welfare projects, business grants, childcare for key workers and virtual education. All of this comes at a cost and we do not know how long these services will need to be provided.
‘We need to be in a position to plan for the future but there are so many variables and future uncertainties that forecasting, and modelling is impossible to do with any accuracy.
‘There is a great risk that whatever scenario we plan for may be significantly different from what actually transpires, with the council potentially facing a financial deficit that significantly outweighs our reserves.’
Following discussions, the committee agreed to make representations to the government to advise that the council may require significant further financial support or other intervention from government in order to manage its budget in the 2020/21 financial year.